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22/03/2013

Why Nairobi may not be Africa’s Silicon Savanna.

Nairobi, once known as the city in the sun, and a place of cool waters, has acquired a new name. It is now known as ‘Africa’s Silicon Savanna’. Everyone predicts that Nairobi will be the epicenter of technology in Africa in the coming few years, but this may be far from the truth. There are so many salient factors that make a city- or a country, to be a technology center, and at the moment, Nairobi just doesn’t possess these attributes.

It is often said that there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come. But even more powerful are the individuals behind an idea. So, for Nairobi to be the glowing technology success story it is painted out to be, we must look at the technology entrepreneurs, or in short, the techpreneurs. While initiatives such as ihub are to be lauded for aiming to spur entrepreneurial talent, one can never learn swimming unless they jump into the swimming pool. Sometimes, one wonders whether the techpreneurs are just creating a buzz, attending conferences and schmoozing with rich executives from Google and Facebook, when in real sense, they should be spending time in the garage working on their ventures.

One issue that the Kenyan techpreneurs will have to deal with is relevance. How will their technology venture solve a problem for the Kenyan consumers? Copy and paste solutions will not work. Simply because an idea worked in America or Europe doesn’t mean that it will work in Kenya. Money transfer services like MPESA and airtel money worked because they solved a problem. People needed to transfer money, yet they did not have bank accounts. No one cares about the technology; it’s what the technology will help them to do that is most important. So, simply because you can design the best software,
or are the fastest programmer, doesn’t mean that you will make software that will solve people’s needs. A mobile app like –MFarm, helps farmers know the prices of their farm produce. They know where their produce is needed and the app is relevant, because it solves a farmer’s problem of finding market for the produce at the best possible price. There are also similar successful apps in the medical field, helping patients connect with their doctors, and find the correct diagnosis to their diseases.  

The last, and perhaps the most important, is access to capital. Getting a loan to start a business is hard anywhere in the world, but in Kenya, it is even harder because most of the banks are not equipped to lend to businesses in the IT industry. At least in the traditional brick and mortar businesses, when one wants a loan, they can show machinery or cows and goats in the farm to the loan officer as collateral. How do you go to a bank explaining that your idea is a line of codes, stored in your flash disk?

Venture capitalists and angel investors- those who fund most techpreneurs, are very nascent in Kenya, and the weak intellectual property laws make many techpreneurs not to source for funding. Since the quality of the entrepreneur is much more important a factor to the success of a venture than the idea itself, Kenyan techpreneurs could perhaps team up with experienced business people to help them get their ventures up and running. You will hardly find that an IT geek is a great marketer, yet for people to buy the software, they will need to know it exists. Even though partnership sounds dreary to most young entrepreneurs, since the fear of being conned out of their ventures is real, but sometimes, that is the only way they can bring their dreams to reality. As the old saying goes, it is better to get 10 percent of a million shillings than get 100 percent of nothing.

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